Dr. Courtney Howard, MD

“Di manakah toilet?”

We put our 4 year-old Vivi in charge of learning how to ask directions to the bathroom in Indonesian.  Important job.  Needed the best possible chance of being remembered.  I figured she has the youngest mind, so given language-learning aptitudes it was most likely to stick there.

And it did.  For both her and our 6-year-old Elodie.

I could never remember how the phrase started.

Finally, we stepped off the plane in Jakarta into a wonderful fuzz of humid, hot air.  Elodie’s eyebrows shot up, “Yeah.  It’s warmer than Yellowknife.  Oh, Yeah.”

Vivi, my second subarctic-raised child, who has a comfortable-temperature range of precisely 2 degrees—between about 17-19C–started squirming and pulling at her shirt, a Valentine’s Day present from her Nona with two pockets on the front. During the trip, one pocket had been home to a red Canada-bear keychain, the other became the hideaway of a cherished chocolate golden coin that had been handed out for Chinese New Year’s in the Vancouver Airport.  Somewhere between Tokyo and Jakarta, she’d fished the melty coin out and eaten it, but not before some of the chocolate had oozed out into the pocket.  Her too-hot wiggles were in danger of becoming overtired thrashes, and I was starting to worry about possible pocket-melted chocolate squirts, when suddenly she turned and grinned, “Do you remember how to ask to go to the toilet in Indonesian, Mommy?”

Me. Blankly. 20+ travel-hours in. “No.”

“Di Manakah Toilet?” she chirped, then skipped ahead of us into the airport beaming.

A nice man motioned us towards the airport’s family toilet, the customs officer grinned at the girls, and it soon became clear from the smiles that surrounded us at the luggage carousel that we’d landed in a country that loves kids. Canada is friendly to kids, but not like this—passers-by patted them on the head, several stewardesses gave them high-fives, and a security guard bent down to chuck Vivi under the chin. The kids’ arrival buzz carried over as they romped into our hotel room. Two AM found our cubs play-fighting with Darcy calling out, “Elodie! Stop standing on your sister’s face!” When Vivi completely and utterly lost it 5 hours later as we checked out, we didn’t even really get any death-stares for being the people who’d brought the wild and tearful animal to the breakfast buffet.

I love countries like this.  I’m not sure, exactly, what is different here than in Canada.  Perhaps, at home, we adults all simply think that what we’re doing is too important to be disturbed by children.


As we’ve travelled further from the capital, people’s smiles have stayed broad, but the toilets they direct us to are changing. Plumbing-related drama is always a bit of a travel-stress—most recently I actually had to get the hotel lady in Bonn, Germany, to show me how to turn on the shower.  (This is a good way to make someone else feel smart.)

I’ve had to plumbing-adapt before, but I’ve never had to lead the adaptation wave. Motherhood challenge #679.

Jakarta’s facilities boasted a full range of options: abundant TP and the water-sprayer attachment that I’ve seen previously, when I lived in Djibouti, also a majority-Muslim country.

Midday today, we landed in Semerang, still on the island of Java, and found an empty TP-holder and the sprayer.  I started picturing the Kleenex in my bag and wondering how many days it would last.  We’re not many years past diapers—this type of logistical stock-taking is still second-nature.  And then I saw the sticker reminding me of the eco-benefits of a water-based strategy (as though they’d read my guilt-prone-eco-nerd mind).

Best back-of stall door sign ever

After we changed terminals, there was simply the sprayer, paired with the best back-of-stall sign I’ve seen in some time.  I particularly enjoy the indication-of-dehydration colour coding at the bottom.

I took a picture of the toilet and the sign. (This is a good way to make a bathroom-cleaner double-over laughing.)

Borneo Parenting Challenge #1

And then we landed in Borneo.  I headed to the bathroom with Vivi, and beheld our first squatter toilet, complete with an open tap and an overflowing water tank beside it. She peered at the scene, “Hey!  Maybe it’s a little bathtub for babies!” I decided that there was no possible way we were going to make it through the next month if we didn’t fully roll the way the Romans do in Rome.  Steady tone, reasonable expression, I explained that the water and scoop was for use instead of toilet paper.  She took this calmly, making me quite proud.

At that moment, a largish insect flew in through the window.  Her hands flew up– “Oh!  A bug!!!” And she scurried out, her mid-winter subarctic semi-sterile no-insect norms having been decisively violated.

Elodie came in, listened to the unlikely story, and crinkled up her nose.

I have previously helped lead workshops entitled “Leadership and Influence.”  All skills of persuasion described in the workshop were required. I was glad we’ve done as much camping as we’ve done.

Tomorrow, we get on a boat for 3 days and 2 nights to go look for chimpanzees in Tanjung Putting National Park, in the last vacation-y part of our trip before we head to the hospital.  I have no idea how one pees in this circumstance, but I believe that relatively profound plumbing/non-plumbing drama may soon be ours.  At least I can count on Vivi to ask, when the need arises, “Di manakah toilet?”

Di Manaka Toilet? On travel and novel plumbing.

Share this post